Wool washing between Ain Lleuh and Mrirt, Morocco.
Ain Alleuh, Morocco, and the train to Fez. I promise we aren’t shooting a western.
Help support The Magic Carpet: http://3arts.org/projects/magic-carpet-story-music/
The Magic Carpet is a new work produced by Borderline Theatre Company—a mobile, transnational theatre collective of which I am co-founder and artistic director. We develop new works based on classic stories, myths, legends and oral traditions, and center them around contemporary border conflicts. During my research along the Spanish-Moroccan and Moroccan-Algerian borders, it became clear that the story of star-crossed lovers held particular resonance in this region. Our lives are full of borders, from those that exist between Chicago neighborhoods to the military outposts between Morocco and Algeria. Through storytelling, I aim to uncover and share our common struggles, and our common joys, with people across the world.
While in Morocco as a Fulbright grantee, I came across a rug made with Moroccan patterns, but with Algerian colors. The merchant had no idea from where it came, but that it was something of an anomaly. Traditionally, the bottom of the rug is left open, so that stories and messages can be woven into the bottom of the rug, as time goes on. I brought this rug back to Chicago with me and now this rug is the framing device for our production. Using recorded oral histories from residents of the Moroccan border city of Oujda, I am using my research to develop The Magic Carpet, a new version of the world’s most tragic love story set along the Moroccan-Algerian border.
With the support of 3AP, I hope to produce a staged reading of this piece in late May. Following the reading, and the script workshop process that would accompany it, I plan to return to Morocco in June to conduct a free admission workshop reading of the piece in Oujda, the largest Moroccan city on the Algerian border. The funds I am raising will allow me to pay all of the artists involved with the project a modest stipend, rent the spaces needed, purchase props, and hire a videographer to capture both productions.
Granted: George Bajalia
When we approached DCASE about recommending a candidate for a successful theater-oriented grant recipient, Director of Cultural Grants Allyson Esposito responded with two words: George Bajalia. Bajalia’s pitch for the Individual Artist Grant in 2013 was for research funding to travel to the frontier of Morocco and Algeria. There, he would gather materials to produce a high-quality play that showcased those cultures to a Chicago audience.Bajalia is interested in raising awareness through accessible storytelling, focusing on the geopolitical realities of people and the arbitrary borders that define or confine them.
Bajalia won $4,000 to research and produce The Magic Carpet. CAR corresponded with him via email to learn a bit more about how he pitched this successful endeavor to the City. His actual grant application documents are attached to the end of this article.
George Bajalia’s Approach:
Grantors want to fund our projects. They work in the non-profit, educational and civil sectors for a reason. They are actively trying to give financial support for artists, and that’s important to remember. Grantors are trying to help.
I start “free-writing” as soon as I find out about the grant. I ask myself why I want to apply for the grant. What project comes to mind? Why would that project be important to the grantor? For the Individual Artist Programgrant, I read through the prompts to get a sense for whom the funder was, and how the grant fit into to its mission. I didn’t worry about matching my responses to the prompts—or even what I wrote—as long as I got my thoughts down.
Grantors are really looking for someone with a clear vision who can articulate that vision to an outside audience.
This early stage is crucial; it’s when I write my most honest argument for why my work is a good fit for the grant. This writing is more candid than later drafts, but it is important. As I revise my writing, I try to distill the grant application into two questions: “Why is my work right for the grant?”and “Why am I the right person to carry it out?” Sometimes, I also answer the question, “Why right now,” though that answer often becomes evident in the editing process.
Affording myself the time to free-write responses is one of the primary advantages of starting early. Later, during the editing process, this work frees up time to hone my responses to address the prompts in an articulate manner.
Previously, when I applied for a Fulbright grant, I received some very good counsel: Fulbright isn’t always looking for good research, they are looking for good researchers. Grantors are really looking for someone with a clear vision who can articulate that vision to an outside audience.
I have to confess that I don’t always start early. The other good thing about the free-write is that I usually generate much more material than I need. A small amount of it is relevant. I never delete the excess; I compile it in a separate document. This material isn’t necessarily bad, it just may not be right for the proposal at hand. For ongoing projects, it can be really helpful to have this material as starting points for additional applications.
Demonstrate the ability to develop a realistic and executable plan.
Occasionally I’ll solicit the opinion of other directors and writers, but oftentimes I seek out the opinions of colleagues who work in other fields of the arts. Their critiques help me build a sense of the common vocabulary I should use for the proposal. Grant readers are individuals who have in-depth, but extremely varied, experiences with the arts. My proposal to fund a play needs to click with people from a diverse array of backgrounds. Getting feedback from fellow artists and arts administrators gives me a sense of what language is intelligible across backgrounds. It also provides extremely useful insight into how my project plan sits with potential audience members and collaborators.
George’s application had an incredibly clear writing style without sounding overly academic or abstract.
The most appealing thing to grantors is that you demonstrate the ability to develop a realistic and executable plan. Get specific about your plans for the grant’s support. Even if your final product ends up a bit different, these plans show that you have a well-defined framework. Any funds raised advance the project. At the end of the day, the grantor wants to fund somebody. We just need to help them believe in our work as much we do.
Allyson Esposito, director of cultural grants, DCASE:
George’s application had an incredibly clear writing style, conveying the potential and importance of his idea in high level concepts without sounding overly academic or abstract. He is focused on the development of a new work that has an exciting international component. Based on the artist’s work sample, the panel had every confidence that the final product will be involving, multicultural and open up dialogue around arbitrary borders. The premise of exploring arbitrary borders through the tangible metaphor of an incomplete rug is rich in both thematic and visual potential. Exceptionally detailed and accurate budget.
George Bajalia is a Chicago-based theatre artist and cultural critic. His research interests lie at the intersection of cultural globalization, identity performance and transnationalism within the Mediterranean region. Previously he was a Fulbright scholar in Morocco, where he adapted and directed a Moroccan Arabic production of West Side Story in addition to continuing research on the role of performance, on stage and off, in public discourse.
Bajalia is co-founder and artistic director of a transnational mobile arts lab called the Borderline Theatre Project, and is working with the Chicagotheatre company Silk Road Rising on a short film entitled Multi Meets Poly; Multiculturalism and Polyculturalism Go on a First Date. He is also working on his new play, The Magic Carpet, which examines the militarization of the border between Morocco and Algeria and the economies of exchange, both formal and informal, between residents on either side of the border.
Bajalia holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication studies and Mediterranean culture and history from Northwestern University. he is a staff writer for online magazine Muftah.org and a contributor to visual anthropology blog Signs of Seeing.
George Bajalia is also featured on the 3Arts website.
This article was originally published in Muftah.org and has been reprinted here with permission.
[Fatima El Zohra Lahouitar and Mouna Rmiki performing in the author’s piece F7ali, F7alek/Like Me, Like You in Tangier, Morocco. (Photo credit: Omar Chennafi)]
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has successfully maintained a reputation for being a business-friendly, reform minded monarch, despite the wave of unrest that spread across North Africa in early 2011. The country’s February 20 Movement, also know as Feb20, which emerged at that time, called for “an end to autocracy and … corruption.” Since then, the king has taken advantage of positive international media attention to showcase Morocco’s comparative potential as a commercial hub and access point for new African markets. Quick cosmetic reforms to the constitution, followed by new parliamentary elections in November 2011, further solidified King Mohammed VI’s progressive image.
Despite a seeming decline in revolutionary sentiment in Morocco, the performing arts community has assumed new importance as an extension and continuation of the February 20 Movement’s ethos and objectives. Certain theatre groups in the country maintain Feb20’s ideological goals, and address themes of governance, reform, and secular politics in their work. But, even more important is the changing linguistic landscape of performance art in the country. Today many young performing artists in Morocco are, quite literally, altering the language for sharing and communicating their experiences. The usage of formal Modern Standard Arabic and French— traditionally the languages of high theatre in Morocco—has given way to more performances written and staged in conversational Moroccan Arabic.
This is symbolic on a number of levels. Darija is an ever-changing dialectical mix of Arabic, French, Amazight, Spanish, and English. Many Moroccans only learn Modern Standard Arabic, which bears little resemblance to the local vernacular, in school. As such, by using Moroccan Arabic in their performances, artists are signaling an overt shift in their focus. Instead of seeking out artistic conversations with cultural elites, these theatre practitioners are actively looking for audiences among the general public.
Moroccan Theatre in Context
Prior to Morocco’s independence from France and continuing into the King Hassan II era, Moroccan theatre acted as an outlet for spreading dissident messages. Low literacy rates and the prominence of storytelling traditions, such as halqa, made theatre into a tool for activating public discourse. In response, the state took an increasingly hands-on approach to theatre and established university festivals and municipal theaters. This encouraged the development of dramatic studies, while also offering government institutions the opportunity to regulate the types of performances taking place across the country. The dissident theatre of the early independence era was all but extinguished, and theatre became an emblem of high art, with performers and writers primarily using Classical Arabic or French.
Today, the linguistic landscape of Morocco’s official performing arts scene reflects this effort to control theatre discourse, especially at the many government-produced theatre festivals held in partnership with drama and performance studies departments at public universities. Although there is a great deal of progressive work happening within such festivals, audience members come mostly from among fellow theatre producers, academics, and critics, and not from the general public.
Since 2011, a new kind of theatre has taken hold in Morocco. A younger generation of artists, distinct from those who dominated the scene through the later part of King Hassan II’s rule, have started to form and lead theatre groups. Performance troupes such as DabaTeatr, Spectacle Pour Tout, Daha Wassa, and Theatre Aquarium favor a theatrical form called “devising.” Unlike standard script-based performances, “devising” is an improvised form of theatre where the text is developed in cast rehearsals, and then performed by the same group. Such performances use mixes of Moroccan Arabic, Amazight, French, and Classical Arabic, with codeswitching occurring constantly, based on cultural context and dramatic intention.
Unlike their more formal, state-sanctioned counterparts, these groups enjoy audiences that hail from across Morocco’s social and political spectrum. Because their language is less formal, these performances are accessible to all members of the public regardless of education level. That is to say, while not everyone understands everything, everyone understands something.
Besides their symbolic deployment of language, many of these new theatre pieces take up issues publicly championed by the February 20 Movement, as well as hot-button issues like sex tourism, secular politics, religious freedom, and freedom of the press. Often these are the same issues that cause controversy in the Moroccan press and have resulted in government crackdowns on independent publishers such as Ali Anouzla of Lakom.com and former Tel Quel and Nichane editor Driss Ksikes.
Theatre Group Profile: DabaTeatr
Driss Ksikes in particular has been instrumental in converting Morocco’s February 20 Movement into artistic creations. As a playwright, he has tackled subjects such as sexual repression and child abuse in Morocco. Both as a playwright and publisher of news-journal Nichane, Ksikes has strived to provide an outlet for Moroccan Arabic discourses. Since Nichane closed down in 2010 after being banned by the government, Ksikes has channeled his impulse for Moroccan Arabic-centric art and literature into the theatre company, DabaTeatr.
DabaTeatr began in 2004 under the direction of Jaouad Essaouni, an artist and mentee of Ksikes. Since 2006, Ksikes and Essaouni have maintained the monthly DabaTeatr Citoyen symposium, which features improvised scenes, circus, dance, and multimedia performance art. Today, Essaouni continues to direct DabaTeatr as a vehicle for the company’s devised texts as well as Ksikes work. For the second year in a row, the company is producing its ArtQaida festival to coincide with the anniversary of the February 20 Movement.
Many of DabaTeatr’s performances end up on the group’s YouTube page. Essaouni describes this project as an attempt to create a space for “citizen’s theatre.” Encouraging a mix of Morocco’s many spoken languages is a distinct part of that mission.
Digital media also enables theatre groups to disseminate their performances through online outlets and even email list-serves. This has two major implications for these organizations. In creating their work, playwrights generally keep their target audience in mind—the public they envision will attend their performances and consume the content. Traditionally, audience members have been limited to those who are physically present at a performance. Now, however, writers can target people beyond their physical borders. In fact, DabaTeatr has actively sought out collaborators and audience members within the Moroccan diaspora; because of its active media presence, the group has also been able to partner with a number of German and French theatre companies.
But, digital media has been a double-edged sword for Moroccan arts. It has certainly reinvigorated parts of the performing arts scene by providing access to new audiences and funding sources. At the same time, though, it has created a situation wherein artists may find it more profitable—both in terms of fundraising and gathering cultural capital in the arts community—to seek out international audiences at the expense of local consumers.
Disseminating theatre scripts through digital media has also proven to be more difficult. Often these scripts are written using Latin characters and Arabic numerals, combining romance languages, Amazigh, and Arabic into one alphabet. While this allows a diverse array of people to enjoy these texts, it does not enable easy reproduction. On the other hand, this linguistic diversity gives artists the freedom to work without fear of censorship. It is no coincidence that foreign embassies and cultural institutions play a crucial role in funding these companies’ work. By seeking out financing from foreign institutions, theatre makers can be more subversive and need not worry about obtaining approval for their work from the Ministry of Culture.
It is clear that Moroccan Arabic language theatre is on the rise in Morocco. The emergence and persistence of artists, such as Ksikes, and groups like DabaTeatr, working with and in the tradition of, Feb20, demonstrates the movement’s potential long-term effects. An increase in improvisation, devised-texts, and multi-media performance has also served to re-energize a medium many veteran actors considered lost to television and film production. Through their emergence, these theater companies are providing a very real outlet for a new kind of public discourse in Morocco.
This article was originally published in Muftah.org and has been reprinted here with permission.
November 13, 2013
Over the past several weeks, the conflict over the Western Sahara between Morocco and Algeria has resurfaced.
November 6 marked the 38th anniversary of the historic “Green March,” when approximately 350,000 Moroccans marched from the southern city of Tarfaya toward the then Spanish-held Saharan provinces.
The march—hailed by Moroccan King Hassan II as liberating Africa’s final colony—resulted in the division of the Spanish (or “Western”) Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania, setting the stage for a long standing conflict between the People’s Front for the Liberation of Saguia Al Hamra and Rio De Oro (known by its Spanish name of Frente POLISARIO) and the Kingdom of Morocco.
With the Cold War raging hot, the conflict quickly deteriorated into a standoff between NATO-backed Morocco and the POLISARIO, which was supported by Soviet-allied Algeria.
For human rights activists and politicians in the greater Maghreb region, the “Sahara issue” has remained ever-pressing.
But, over the last forty-years, the Western Sahara has come back into the limelight for much of the rest of the world during moments of violence and friction between Morocco and Algeria.
On October 28, 2013, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika called for “the expansion of MINURSO (United Nations Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara)’ mandate to include human rights monitoring” of alleged human rights violations by Moroccan security forces in the Western Sahara. These alleged violations relate specifically to issues of displacement, refugee rights, and labor camps.
Tensions peaked further when, on November 1, Moroccan protestors scaled the fence of the Algerian consulate in Casablanca, removing the Algerian flag. The date of this event coincided with the 59th anniversary of the beginning of the Algerian war for independence from France.
As a result of these developments, the Western Sahara Caucus has again become active in the United States House of Representatives, as discussion of a UN resolution on the issue has re-emerged, and Moroccan King Mohammed VI is scheduled to meet with Barack Obama on November 22.
Because of this confluence of events, talk of political power plays between Morocco, Algeria, and the POLISARIO, and of potential resolution to the long-standing conflict, will likely return to the fore in US and international media coverage.
A look at developments in the conflict over the Western Sahara, which have taken place over the past six months, provides a helpful context for evaluating the important developments of the past two weeks.
We provide this timeline in wary anticipation of the reductive tendencies of the US mainstream media, and as a reference for readers seeking to understand who benefits from the conflict’s international resurgence.
Hamid Chabat, Secretary-General of Morocco’s oldest political party (the Istiqlal), calls for Morocco to retake the Algerian provinces of Tindouf, Colomb Bechar, Hassi Baida, and El Knadssa—by force if necessary.
Chabat adds that the French protectorate placed these provinces under the administrative jurisdiction of the Moroccan city of Agadir, and that a treaty signed in 1972 demarcating the border is invalid, as it had not been ratified by the Moroccan parliament.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika returns from France, where he had been seeking medical treatment since April for a stroke.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika sends his official congratulations to Moroccan King Mohamed VI on the occasion of Moroccan Throne Day. Bouteflika declares his commitment to cooperating with Morocco, including reopening the borders between the two countries and resolving the issue of Western Sahara’s sovereignty.
During his annual Throne Day speech, Moroccan King Mohamed VI accuses Algeria of preventing political resolution and economic development in the Western Sahara.
US Representatives Joseph Pitts (R- PA 16) and Betty McCollum (D-MN 4) announce they have restarted the Western Sahara Caucus in the US House of Representatives.
International human rights organization Amnesty International publishes a report detailing human right abuses—including the 1976 summary execution of two children by Moroccan military forces—in the Western Sahara.
The report also condemns Morocco’s Reconciliation and Equity Commission, created in 2003, for not addressing past abuses in the Sahara.
A delegation of youth members from the Moroccan socialist party USFP visits Tindouf and meets with POLISARIO Front leaders Bachir Mustapha Sayed and Mohamed Khadad.
Moroccan security forces disperse pro-separatist/independence protests and sit-ins in the Saharan city of Laayoune. The event is largely ignored by both Moroccan and Algerian media.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika denounces “human rights violations” in the Western Sahara at the First Conference African Solidarity for the Independence of the Saharawi People in Abuja, Nigeria.
UN Secretary-General Personal Envoy for the Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, announces he will return to the region and launch a new initiative to end the dispute over the sovereignty of the Western Sahara.
During a protest in front of the Algerian consulate in Casablanca, Morocco, a demonstrator reaches the building’s roof and removes the Algerian flag. The Algerian press views the act as intentionally provocative, coming as it does on the 59th anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France. [video]
Protests against removal of the Algerian flag from the Algerian consulate spread across Algeria. The Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and politicians condemn the incident and demand an apology from Morocco. Abdallah Belkaziz, Moroccan Ambassador to Algeria, is recalled to Rabat.
Abdallah Belkaziz, Moroccan Ambassador to Algeria, returns to Algiers and offers Morocco’s official regrets, but no apology, for the flag removal incident.
On the 38th anniversary of Morocco’s Green March, King Mohammed VI reiterates that “the Sahara issue is every Moroccan’s cause with no exception. It is everyone’s duty.”
A video begins to make its way across social media reportedly depicting a group of Algerian youth burning the Moroccan flag. [video]
US Secretary of State John Kerry postpones a scheduled trip to Morocco and Algeria as he makes a stop in Geneva to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.
Moroccan King Mohammed VI is scheduled to meet with US President Barack Obama in Washington.
It is certainly tempting to read this timeline as simply one of escalations and tension in Algerian-Moroccan relations, interspersed with attempted interventions by international institutions.
We, however, propose a new reading of these events, grounded in domestic factors within both countries. As this reading shows, both countries have used the Western Sahara as a way to distract from turmoil inside their borders.
The lessons of the Arab Spring implanted themselves on the leaders of both nations. While Morocco and Algeria have been relatively untouched by the region’s political instability, both regimes have stoked nationalist fervor over the Western Sahara as a prime method for rallying popular support.
In a perverse turn, Algerian and Moroccan leaders have also made reference to international organizations and the language of human rights in their political salvos on the conflict.
In doing so, they have undermined the struggle for democracy within their countries - suddenly, universal values and human rights are no longer a rallying point for domestic activists seeking reform.
While both nations have been elected to membership in the UN Human Rights Council, the reality, of course, is that both Morocco and Algeria are human rights offenders.
The steady stream of sub-Saharan migrants crossing Morocco and Algeria adds another dimension to the conflict over the Western Sahara.
Moroccan Interior Minister Mohammed Hassad and Immigration Minister Anas Birou recently revealed new plans for comprehensive immigration reform that seeks to “regularize” irregular migrants, many of whom can spend years residing in Morocco or Algeria on their way north.
While this new legislation has been hailed as a positive step, it raises the possibility that a growing migrant community—empowered with new legal status in Morocco—may begin to advocate for equal status in Algeria, or even a path to full citizenship in both countries.
As these examples demonstrate, international posturing over the Sahara is a convenient distraction from the more difficult discussions that need to take place between these governments and their own populations, as well as with the international community at large.
*George Bajalia is a staff writer for Muftah and former Fulbright research grantee in Morocco. Follow him on Twitter @ageorgeb or at www.georgebajalia.com. Toshiro Baum is a former Fulbright research grantee in Morocco. Follow him on Twitter @toshirobaum.
It’s producer Tom Casserly’s birthday, so we went out to the Figuig souk looking for a birthday present. We came back with many many dates.
This article was originally published in Muftah.org and has been reprinted here with permission. See the original at http://muftah.org/when-you-wish-upon-a-star-a-story-of-facial-hair-disney-movies-and-my-childhood-wishes/
I’m happy to share a new article I published with Muftah.org! It’s been a while, but please check back here for more thoughts on the subject, and for links to more current projects. And check out Parts Unknown Episode 5: Tangier for a conversation I had with Anthony Bourdain over mint tea in Tangier! Now, onto the article!
Part I: Jiminy Cricket, It’s an Arab!
I’ve been experimenting with new facial hair patterns lately. It started last month when I was acting in a play for which I was asked to grow a beard. It took some time, but eventually I started to see results.
I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of an odd case among those of Arab descent—I’ve jokingly self-identified as “the non-hairy Arab” to those lucky enough to hear about my facial follicle follies.
Last year, while living in Morocco, my attempts at hair growth turned into a social experiment. I found that my experiences walking down the street varied depending on the length of my hair and the growth of my beard (or lack thereof).
With shoulder-length curly hair, I was often mistaken for a southern European tourist. Upon responding that I was Palestinian-American, I would inevitably be put to the test, as my interlocutor would set out to establish my authenticity with a barrage of questions and dialects.
When I responded in darija (Moroccan Arabic) however, the disbelief would grow. A Palestinian who spoke the Moroccan vernacular better than Palestinian dialect? And an American to boot? “No, not South America,” I would always confirm, “North America.”
Sometimes, the questions would get specific. “Where in America?” The complexities grew as I tried to explain, “Florida—well, I live in Chicago. Actually, I live in Tangier now, but I’ll be going back to Chicago.” Occasionally, we’d even get around to the Chicago connections—Michael Jordan, Barack Obama, and, without fail, Al Capone.
But that’s a different story. This story is about my facial hair—or at least it starts that way.
Eventually fed up with all of this mistaken identity, I would cut my hair short at the neighborhood barber. The barber would always snicker a bit at my minimal beard growth as he slapped cream on the straight razor. Within 15 minutes, my nose would be more prominent, and my heavy Arab brow more clear. At least, this way, I wouldn’t have to deal with any more misperceptions. I could walk down the street and be just as Arab as anyone else. Except, why should that make a difference? We’re talking about Morocco; a country with a diverse population, including many of Amazigh descent. The diverse ethnic origins of the Maghreb endow the region with many different looks, not all of which are stereotypically “Arab.”
It worked though. I became more stereotypically Arab. No one spoke to me in Italian anymore. Although why should that stop simply because of a haircut? Even as a kid, people assumed I was of Italian origin and sometimes I didn’t bother correcting them. I imagined using the alias Tony occasionally—Tony B, a good Sicilian name.
I thought the questions would cease when I came back to Chicago. Surely this was just a part of life in Tangier, a city packed with expatriates, tourists, and travelers from all over the world.
But the questions haven’t stopped. These days, and especially as violence flares up in America, there are quite a few cases of mistaken identity. It’s a sensitive topic, with lots of loaded and coded terminology.
While I was abroad I read about a woman in New York who pushed a man onto the subway tracks because she “hate[s] Hindus and Muslims and ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers [she’s] been beating them up. [sic]”
Since coming back, with short hair and a lengthening beard, I’ve been especially attentive in the subway. Though it’s probably silly, I can’t help but think that perhaps I should stand further away from that blue line marking the platform’s “danger zone.” And once I’m on the train, I start wondering “Are those people staring at me?” In fact, I’ve received a few comments on my Aladdin-esque appearance on the train—maybe it’s just one giant Disney conspiracy.
After the play closed (for which I’d grown that scraggly semblance of a beard), I decided to maintain some of the growth. I trimmed it neatly, but noticed it looked somewhat like what I’d call—perhaps insensitively—a Salafi beard.
One day, on my way home, I stopped in a corner store. As I was waiting to pay the man stocking the shelves called out to me, “Arabi!” I looked in his direction, brushed it off, and turned back to pay.
The man behind the counter tallied my items, but was interrupted once more by the same man calling out, “tkalem mahu b’arabi.” [speak with him in Arabic After exchanging salutations, the cashier stopped me. “inta yemeni?” [Are you Yemeni?] he asked. “No, I’m not from Yemen. I’m from Florida. Well, my grandparents are from Ramallah and I think somewhere in the 1500s they came there from Yemen. So yes, I guess I am maybe from Yemen.”
Again, the more I explained, the more complicated it became. “Sorry, I don’t know what you’re saying. Do you by chance speak Moroccan?,” After a year and a half in Morocco, the Moroccan dialect was easier for me to understand. “Oh you do? Really? Oh, your wife is from Agadir. Wonderful, t’barak allah, your kids are really beautiful. Wallah, tasharafna, or mtsharafeen, or- you know what—nice to meet you.”
Since then, I’ve trimmed the facial hair down even more, to something like a tame version of the genie’s beard inAladdin. Much tamer. Maybe it’s a beginner’s goatee? In any case, it’s a new development. We’ll see what happens with it. I’m not sure where on the ethnically ambiguous palette I appear now, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon.
Part II: You Ain’t Never Had a Friend like Me
As a child I really imagined the Aladdin genie was talking to me. It wasn’t a hallucination—I just had a wild imagination.
I’ve already brought up Aladdin twice here, which deserves some explanation. Or rather some reflection on self-Orientalization and the importance of Aladdin when you grow up brown, and why I was afraid of The Return of Jafaruntil I was 12.
I recall sitting at home watching the latest escapades of my hero and, in the midst of the cartoon frantically ran to the VCR in search of the pause button. I couldn’t find it, and the remote wasn’t working. I stood on the bottom of the cabinet and groped until I located the TV’s power button. I was 6 years old, and not normally one to shy away from an adventure.
To me, the new Jafar was a power-hungry fiend. I was terrified. I didn’t think Aladdin, the once-formidable Prince Ali, could pull through. So I ejected the video and buried it behind my sister’s Reading Rainbow tapes. Every few years, I would come across The Return of Jafar, feeling torn. My fear of the film eventually turned into a fear of all horror movies, which is what I thought it was.
What was behind my panic and anxiety? After nearly two decades, I can finally furnish an answer. At the time, in the midst of the Gulf War, Arabic culture didn’t play a role in the life of the average American. There was no such thing as hookah bars, and hummus was just a fancy name for decomposed plants.
But then along came Aladdin. For me, the film signaled that mainstream American culture valued my heritage. Prince Ali and I had a connection. We were both brown. I had latched onto Peter Pan for his high-flying sense of mischief and Mowgli for his rough and tumble sense of jungle living, but here was something different – a Disney hero to whom I could actually relate—as much as any four year old could relate to a celebrity idol.
I had just moved to a new city and a new school, and Aladdin was my saving grace. Like him, I could be a scrappy rebel in the company of good-hearted bandits and renegades. Playing Squanto in the elementary school Thanksgiving Day celebration just wasn’t the same anymore.
Later, during my time at university, I came across post-structuralist critiques of movies like Aladdin. These critiques emphasized how Aladdin reduced a complex culture to simple stereotypes and cached Orientalist notions, not to mention some pretty horrific gender biases. I’ve even written such critiques myself.
As a kid, though, this hadn’t bothered me. I’ve struggled with this reality, wondering if I engaged in years of self-Orientalization, and if Arabic culture was eternally doomed to be showcased by flowing robes and magic carpets.
I still don’t know, but I have come to another conclusion. Aladdin gave me something to hold onto, a way to explain why my family ate hummus with our turkey on Thanksgiving, and a lush, full-color landscape to help envision my grandparents’ stories of the “Old Country.” Yes, designers at a Disney studio colored in this landscape, and, of course, it bore little resemblance to Ramallah. But, as CNN pioneered live wartime broadcasts of the Gulf and stark images of the region sailed into homes across the United States, I encountered something different in Aladdin—an idealized and essentialized world surely, but a whole new world nonetheless.
When The Return of Jafar appeared in 1994, one year after the attempted bombings of the World Trade Center in New York City, something had changed. Jafar looked different from the original movie. He was not the Captain Hook-style villain I remembered, but a real enemy: a scary figure I no longer wanted in my story. And so I cut him out.
For years I refused to watch Aladdin, moving onto Davy Crockett, back to Peter Pan, and eventually developing an affinity for rock n’ roll legend Joe Strummer.
But in the beginning there was Aladdin, and in the end it all comes back to him. Despite all the stereotyping, I am still grateful for Aladdin. It gave me something to hold onto, and a snappy retort for the “Osama yo mama?” taunts of middle school.
When I moved to Morocco, colleagues and friends from Morocco, America, and Europe would inevitably remark that I looked like Aladdin. The flying carpet questions returned, and I used them to my advantage while bargaining at carpet bazaars. I heard that Disney was coming to Morocco to do research for its next Broadway project, Aladdin, the Musical. I even entertained fantasies of guiding Disney executives through the medina of Fez and “dis-orienting” their perspectives on the Maghreb.
I look forward to the Broadway version of Aladdin. The horrible stereotypes and borderline racist lyrics notwithstanding, I’m glad it’s coming back to the mainstream. Some young Arab-American, with a slightly off-white skin tone and inventive imagination, will see it and maybe envision an identity beyond the name-calling and hate-mongering on the news and the bad guys on Homeland. And for me, well, it’s still a great conversation starter on the train.